The last scene of Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson’s semi-autobiographical black comedy about two struggling young actors in London, might just be one of the saddest moments in cinema. “Marwood,” the “I” of the film, and a thinly fictionalized version of Robinson himself, has just landed a plum lead role in a feature length film. It’s raining. His friend Withnail wants to walk with him to the train station. But Marwood is moving on. He’s in his late 20s. It’s the last few months of the 1960s. He’s cut his hair. It’s time to grow up. Withnail, who might best be described as a lovable, hyper-articulate, angry, drunken fuck up, suddenly changes. The expression on his face softens. An earnest tone creeps into his voice as he says goodbye. Alone, on a sudden urge, he recites Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” speech.
“I have of late–but
wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither.”
(Hamlet, Act II, scene ii)
“What a piece of work is man,” is not a soliloquy. Hamlet is speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but it becomes a soliloquy in Withnail and I. Withnail is too self-destructive, too much of an alcoholic to make it in film. He’s also a natural Shakespearean actor who makes the speech utterly his own. Hamlet is acting a part, putting on an “antic disposition” to throw the king off his trail while he plots revenge for his father’s murder. Withnail is not only saying goodbye to his friend. He’s saying goodbye to acting. Marwood is going on to bigger and better things. Withnail is not. He’s 29 years old, and he knows he’s a failure. He’s singing a dirge for his youth, for the days when he could dream of making his living as an actor, but, above all, for his friendship with Marwood. He’s from a privileged family — there are hints that he graduated from Harrow — so he’ll probably be able to drink himself to death instead of winding up in the hell of a 9 to 5 job. But he’ll also die young, alone, unfulfilled.
Bruce Robinson, who first wrote Withnail and I as a novel in the early 1980s before turning it into a screenplay in the later 1980s, as it turns out, also played Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s classic film version of Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Withail’s lecherous, gay, and snobbish Uncle Monty is based on Zeffirelli. Monty’s aggressive sexual overtures towards Marwood are a reference to the great Italian director’s alleged sexual harassment of the young males of Romeo and Juliet’s cast. While a powerful man sexually harassing teenagers under his care is anything but amusing, a prissy old aesthete coming onto men in their late 20s, men who are using him for his country house and his wine cellar, is positively hilarious. It’s impossible to remember at the expression on Marwood’s face when he realizes that his friend Withnail has used him as “bait,” told his uncle that he was a gay hustler, a “toilet trader,” without laughing.
“But Monty. I’m not homosexual.”
“Yes you are. Of course you are.”
Withnail and I is more than a film about alcoholism, angry young men, the end of the 1960s, or a bit of gossipy revenge by Bruce Robinson against Franco Zeffirelli for feeling him up on the set of Romeo and Juliet. It becomes, whether Robinson meant it to be or not, a profound meditation on the Shakespearean actor in the age of cinema. If Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet has had such an enduring appeal, it has little to do with Shakespeare’s language. Hamlet is about language. Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, is about youth, beauty, and sexual awakening. It is, therefore, the most cinematic of Shakespeare’s plays. Depending on how much you want to play up the incestuous vibe between Hamlet and Gertrude, you can cast Hamlet as a 20-year-old or a 40-year-old, as an angry young man of action, or as a refined philospher, paralyzed by his own logical mind. You can, therefore, chose from a wide selection of professional actors. Juliet, on the other hand, is 13. A 20-year-old actress playing Juliet is a stretch. A 25-year-old actress would be slightly ridiculous, and a 30-year-old downright ludicrous. You can cast whoever you want as Tybalt and Mercutio, but Romeo and Juliet have to be, not only young and beautiful, but able to convey that sense of urgency you feel as a teenager when you fall in love for the first time. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, both non-professional actors in 1968, carry out their roles so well it’s hard to imagine why you’d ever have to film the play again. What’s more, the real strengths of Zeffirelli’s film, the play of light and shadow on Olivia Hussey’s face, the famous nude scene, the lush musical score, the rich palette of colors at the masked ball, the brilliantly lit, and agonizingly sad denouement in the tomb, are cinematic, not dramatic. Except, perhaps, for Michael York as Tybalt, there aren’t any good actors in Zeffirelli’s film. John McEnery is, at best, mediocre as Mercutio, but it really doesn’t matter. This is a film, not a play. If video killed the radio star, then cinema killed Shakespearean drama.
Therein lies the problem for Withnail, the problem that Bruce Robinson so adroitly gets on film. It is, in fact, an issue Shakespeare himself understood. When you privilege the visual, and aural, over the dramatic, sight and sound over language, you undercut the power of the actor. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern announce that the players, who Hamlet will attempt to use to get his uncle to reveal his guilt, have arrived at Elsinore, Hamlet is curious. Why do such great actors have to go on tour? There’s more money in the city.
“How chances it they travel? their residence, both
in reputation and profit, was better both ways.”
(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)
After Hamlet asks him if the players have “grown rusty,” Rosencrantz tells him about the “late innovation.”
“Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but
there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases,
that cry out on the top of question, and are most
tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the
fashion, and so berattle the common stages–so they
call them–that many wearing rapiers are afraid of
goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.
(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)
Sarah Bernhardt and Edwin Booth, in other words, have been replaced by Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. Drama has been replaced by cinema. In the 1860s, there were hundreds of Shakespearean productions a year in New York City. By the 1960s, you were down to a few big budget productions, and the occasional movie out of Hollywood. The film director, the auteur, that same director Bruce Robinson lambasts for his lust for handsome young men, is now much more important than the man they choose to play Hamlet or the woman they chose to play Lady Macbeth. Hamlet wonders why the dramatic impresarios of the day agreed to cast children instead of real actors, a reference, of course to the famous Blackfriars Theatre. Doesn’t it weaken the actor’s craft?
“What, are they children? who maintains ’em? how are
they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no
longer than they can sing? will they not say
afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common
players–as it is most like, if their means are no
better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?”
(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)
Throughout Withnail and I, Withnail and Marwood drink, get into trouble with the police, invade a tea shop looking for leftovers — there’s plenty of alcohol in Monty’s country house but not much food — chat with a strange, slightly creepy drug dealer, collect “benefits,” do everything, in short, but act. They are passive, proletarianized employees, not, like William Shakespeare, thespian entrepreneurs. They wait by the phone to hear from their agents. Marwood finally gets the call to star in a film, but all he really does throughout the film is to play Withnail’s straight man while he waits for it. Withnail, in turn, acts. He’s always acting. A lot of his self-destructive behavior, in fact, is designed to set him up in situations where he can act. Robinson manages to convey what we’ve lost. Back in Elizabethan England, Marwood, Withnail and Uncle Monty all would have been part of a traveling theatre company. They would have been social outcasts, and most likely impecunious, but they would have gotten to act, all the time. In fact, their drinking, carousing, lechery, their riotous behavior, and natural, bohemian free-spiritedness would have been what made them successful actors, not what doomed Withnail. “There’s a point in a young man’s life,” Uncle Monty says, “when he realizes that he will never play the Dane.” In 1605 in London, or in 1850 in New York, Uncle Monty, and Withnail both would have gotten calls to play The Dane so many times they would have gotten sick of it. What’s more, their lives would have been fun, not filled with anxiety and self-denial. In the 1960s, and certainly in the 2010s, characters like Monty and Withnail get shunted to the side in the modern world. But, whatever their flaws, it’s people like Monty and Withnail who make the world an interesting place. If the idea of going out on the town with a wild and crazy drunk like Withnail and a hilariously lecherous, flaming homosexual like Monty doesn’t sound like fun, then Shakespeare is probably not for you.
Indeed, if Withnail and I has become a cult classic, then it’s largely because it managed to convey a sense of the anarchic joy of the Elizabethan stage, of the sheer love of quotable language, that Shakespeare in Love, Gwynneth Paltrow’s mediocre 1998 star turn, could only hint at.